Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Concern at Mugabe's State of Health

Cabinet ministers say they are increasingly worried at the Zimbabwean leader’s erratic behaviour.
By Edgar Chimanikire
Has age finally caught up with Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, who has often described himself as the “the youngest old man in Zimbabwe?”



The president’s recent visit to a Johannesburg hospital, uncovered by South African reporters, has sparked widespread speculation about his health.



There have been conflicting statements about the purpose of his visit to the private Garden City Hospital. Junior hospital staff told the Cape Argus newspaper that Mugabe reported for a routine medical check-up at the neurology department, while the clinic’s assistant general manager, Linda Gnade, said he was visiting a sick friend. A local radio reporter discovered Mugabe and his wife Grace leaving by a fire escape at the back of the hospital.



Speculation increased inside Zimbabwe and diplomatic tongues wagged when Mugabe failed to return from his official annual leave at the end of January. Well into February, the tightly-controlled state media continued to refer to Vice President Joyce Mujuru as “acting president”. Several newspapermen were told by government sources that Mugabe was “unwell”.



One newspaper quoted a government source as saying, “Let’s stop looking for hidden problems. The guy is 82 and at that age nothing functions properly. The age would not be so much a factor if he was presiding over a peaceful, vibrant country, but Zimbabwe is going through its worst ever crisis.”



One government minister said Mujuru had no meaningful power in her acting role, as she was unable to chair cabinet meetings or make policy decisions without consulting the president. However, the minister was unable to give a convincing explanation for why Mugabe extended his leave until mid-February.



In a country where top officials routinely engage in obfuscation, it is nevertheless an open secret that Mugabe’s mental state has been a source of worry to his closest lieutenants for some time. He has reportedly become forgetful, and strongly asserts that the increasingly difficult situation in the country is fine.



As Mugabe enters his 83rd year, the question being asked among those close to him is whether his apparent forgetfulness represents the onset of senile dementia. One example of memory loss was when he recalled the ambassador to Australia, Florence Chitauro, to stand for his ruling ZANU PF party in last November’s election to the new upper house of parliament.



After he had instructed senior officials to ensure that Chitauro returned, Mugabe reportedly expressed surprise to see her back in the country. Official sources told IWPR that Mugabe told Chitauro he could not recall issuing any directive for her return, and that she should go back to Canberra immediately. The same sources said ZANU PF politburo members told Chitauro to delay her return to Australia “just in case the president remembers”. The ambassador was able to delay her return until after she was elected a senator.



A decline in Mugabe’s health would explain some of the contradictory statements and U-turns emerging from State House.



One cabinet minister said he and his colleagues had been awaiting a reshuffle since December, when Mugabe told the ZANU PF congress that he would sack poor performers. No action followed. “Maybe he has forgotten," the minister said only half-jokingly.



Others point to Mugabe’s insistence that there is no hunger in the country, despite international assessments that half the population is in dire need of food aid, as an indication of erratic judgement. When he finally returned to work, he assured ministers that Zimbabwe will have a bumper harvest this year, leading to an economic turnaround. This assessment conflicted with reports of minimal planting because of lack of funds to buy seeds and fertiliser, the dearth of farm machinery, and widespread crop damage caused by heavy rains and flooding.



According to international aid agencies and the local farmers’ organisation Justice for Agriculture, JAG, 90 per cent of the commercial farmland that was productive five years ago is now lying idle. JAG predicts that production levels this year will be “at an all time record low in spite of an excellent summer rainfall season”.



Yet according to one minister, “The president is very optimistic that the turnaround is going to happen this year. He says we are going to have a bumper harvest.”



Asked why he and his colleagues had failed to keep Mugabe properly informed about the true situation, he said, “No one can contradict his statements - and you want us to get fired. No way. He is the one who appointed us, and he is the only one who can fire us, so why risk it when you know it will make him angry?”



The minister said that any senior government or ZANU PF official who risked telling the truth was labelled a “sell-out” or an “agent of the British”. Even news reports about starving villagers appearing in the state media are dismissed as the work of an opposition sympathiser or a propagandist for British prime minister Tony Blair, for whom Mugabe has conceived a strong dislike.



One minister said anyone the browsing agendas and minutes of cabinet meetings could be forgiven for thinking the country was not in crisis at all. “It’s not that he [Mugabe] pretends there is no crisis,” said the minister. “Sadly, he is not aware there is a crisis. It’s a delusion.” Another minister said Mugabe has recently been asking former members of his government why they do not turn up for cabinet meetings.



Increasingly, ordinary Zimbabweans are looking for official and unofficial comment about the health of the head of state.



“Look at Israel: there is nothing secret about their prime minister’s health,” said Harare resident Memory Pfende. “We all now know about Prime Minister [Ariel] Sharon’s dreadful condition. But in Zimbabwe, Mugabe’s health status is shrouded in secrecy. Why did he extend his leave? There is nothing abnormal in Mugabe being sick. At his great age, he can’t defy nature.”



James Mushonga – 79 years old himself – said, “Most of us will slow down a bit physically and mentally as we grow older. As we grow older, we are bound to suffer from a host of illnesses. Look at me - I am even younger than Mugabe. But over the past few years, I was diagnosed with hypertension and diabetes. My kidneys and my heart are enlarged. So I was beginning to wonder how Mugabe does it, and what he eats that enables him to defy age.”



Edgar Chimanikire is the pseudonym used by a journalist in Zimbabwe.